911 tapes to be altered to distort voices

Police will distort voices

Staff WriterAugust 14, 2011 

Those 911 calls the public hears on TV and the Internet will begin to sound a little different.

Law enforcement agencies in North Carolina have begun to alter the voices on 911 call recordings before releasing them to the public, as allowed under a change in the law in June.

Calls to 911 are considered public records under state law and are commonly broadcast by the news media with stories about crime, fires or accidents. Now, instead of releasing 911 calls as recorded, police are allowed to release written transcripts or alter the recordings before making them public to protect the identity of the callers.

The Raleigh and Durham police departments and the Wake County Sheriff's Office are distorting the audio of every 911 recording before releasing it to the public. Others, such the Cary Police Department, will release the calls unaltered except under certain circumstances. Cary police Maj. Dave Wulff said the department will mask the caller's voice only if the identity needs to be protected for a specific reason, particularly in domestic violence cases.

None of the local agencies is considering transcribing the calls. Wake sheriff's spokeswoman Phyllis Stephens said it would take too much time and manpower.

Stephens said the editing software the sheriff's office will use can manipulate the audio several ways, making voices sound higher or lower or otherwise distorted. The sound will vary with the software each agency uses and the discretion of the person editing them.

The new policy may or may not delay the release of the calls to the public, depending on how much of the recordings each agency decides to edit. Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said that if only the caller's voice, not the whole tape, is edited, it takes more time to edit each segment individually. Editing the entire call at once is quicker.

The law clarifies that the recordings must be in their original form when used in court.

Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. of Durham said he and fellow Democratic Sen. Bob Atwater of Chatham County introduced the legislation to better shield 911 callers from intimidation and threats. "Those innocent parties, who are really just doing a good deed, won't be put at risk," McKissick said.

The bill passed both the Senate and the House unanimously.

McKissick said voices on 911 recordings have been recognized in the past, and that especially in gang crime cases, callers were intimidated into dropping charges or refusing to testify. In addition to the 911 bill, McKissick introduced another in March that requires harsher punishment for those who try to intimidate witnesses, making it a felony offense. It passed without dissent.

The added protection that the bills provide is designed to encourage citizens to call without fear of retaliation, McKissick said.

taylor.anderson@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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